Raising Voices: Protests and Activism on the Lawn

Since the founding of the University in 1819, the Rotunda and Lawn have been the focal points of student support for or protest against University policies and the policies of the state and national government.

A major series of demonstrations occurred in spring 1970, after U.S. troops invaded Cambodia. Fifteen hundred students gathered at the Rotunda at 10:30 p.m. on May 4, enraged by the deaths of four Kent State University students at the hands of the National Guard during a demonstration there earlier that day.

University student demonstration leader Mark Krebs read a letter addressed to President Edgar Shannon that denounced the Kent State violence, criticized military policy, and called on President Shannon to ensure the students' right to protest.

Faculty, themselves committed to preserving this right for their students, signed petitions of support and kept watch along University Avenue for several nights running.

Over the next five days, with strike headquarters located at East Lawn 50, thousands of rallying students boycotted their classes, marched on Carr's Hill, blocked the streets, and occupied the Navy ROTC building.

On May 7, local police donned riot gear and moved in. Still, "students stuck tight, feeling the police would never enter the University," according to May Days: Crisis in Confrontation, a firsthand account of the protest. "And even if they did, there was the Lawn. Strangely, most then viewed the Lawn as a sanctuary; it was almost mystic."

But the students were wrong about that: On May 9, police commanded the crowd to disperse as students fled toward unlocked Lawn rooms, where the officers soon found them. In the days that followed, troopers patrolled the Colonnades with canine reinforcement, and students feared walking on the Lawn, alone or with others.

At last, before a crowd of 4,000, President Shannon made a stand, denouncing the police action and championing free speech; it is this address that is credited with returning a sense of order to the besieged institution.

The May Days protest, more than any other before or since, served to redefine the Lawn, strengthening it as an icon for the free expression of ideas.